The holiday season gives restaurants a perfect opportunity to entice hungry holiday shoppers into their establishments. If past years are any indication, diners could spend nearly $100 billion at restaurants in November and December. Not to mention, one in ten adults plan to dine out for Thanksgiving rather than cook at home, and 2/3 of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers say they’ll refuel at a restaurant during the shopping frenzy.
But, as the retail industry knows well, the next four weeks present so much opportunity, but so little time, especially given a slightly shorter season this year. That means restaurants must strike while the iron is hot to attract customers and deliver a memorable experience that keeps them coming back after the first of the year.
While great food is a strong selling point, that’s also become the default expectation, according to guest experience guru Jeremy Wells. “For restaurants and bars, the guest experience is everything. Literally, everything. We live life through experiences,” Wells said. In fact, in the coming year, guest experience is expected to become the primary value customers seek, superseding price and product.
That’s why restaurants must get it right during this prime time in order to wow customers and keep them coming back. But creating that great experience requires so many aspects of operation, marketing, and creativity; it can feel overwhelming. Here are seven tips that can help you focus your efforts:
- Start before guests arrive. Anticipation of a great experience is a powerful enticement. Make sure your guests can find a menu online, including photos of the interior and signature dishes. Be sure your contact information and any special holiday hours are up to date in Google, Yelp, OpenTable, Urbanspoon, and on social media. Take a page from the software industry and think about the “user experience” at this point. Is it easy for customers to find accurate info? If not, fix it.
- Make a grand entrance. It sounds obvious, but make sure customers are greeted, seated promptly, that the music is appropriate, timely, and at the right volume. You’ll want to make sure guests can talk and connect. Decorate for the season to create a festive, welcoming environment. Walk into your restaurant’s front door like a customer—would you find it enticing?
- Plan theme nights. The holidays present plenty of opportunity to create one-off experiences. For example, plan an ugly sweater contest or set up holiday games for families. Host a paint-and-sip or build-a-wreath event where guests can leave with a handmade craft. Offer a mixology class where your bartenders demonstrate how to make holiday-themed drinks for family gatherings. Or, offer a “Friendsgiving” week around Thanksgiving to bring in large groups of people who want to celebrate the holiday sans family.
- Create “sharable” opportunities. In the era of social media, a big part of any great experience is being able to share it with friends and followers. People want to show off your uniqueness because it’s a reflection on them as a tastemaker or trendsetter—they want to show that they were there for that special event or one-time-only opportunity. Create an experience that’s worth of “the ‘Gram” by setting up a holiday-themed photo backdrop or providing holiday-themed props. Encourage your servers to join in the festivities and take photos with guests. Get your own Snapchat filter so guests can tag their photos with your name and location. Create a holiday hashtag and post it around the restaurant. These tactics turn your customers into an army of marketers for your restaurant.
- Give back to the community. Consumers have a strong affinity for companies that do good, and the holiday season is a perfect time to demonstrate your philanthropy. Host a dine-to-donate night where a percentage of every check gets donated to a local service organization. Give discounts for guests who bring in nonperishable foods, personal care items, or new socks to donate to local homeless shelters. This builds a mission into your brand that holiday diners will remember, and as a result, will continue to support you after the New Year.
- Establish referral partnerships. Take advantage of the fact that shoppers are out in full force by partnering with a nearby retailer. Ask them to hand out discount coupons for your restaurant to customers as a spending bonus and vice versa. Pay it forward by offering coupons to holiday season guests that are good for dining in the months of January and February to drive business after the first of the year.
- Ask for feedback from customers. One of the best ways to find out what customers want is simply to ask them. Encourage servers to chat with guests about some of your holiday and post-holiday plans to get their input. Ask if there’s anything they’d like to see or events they’d attend. Of course, look at your online reviews and respond by thanking customers for positive feedback and discussing remedies for negative. You can’t improve what you don’t know about, so be vigilant about gauging customer response.
The holiday season creates a perfect opportunity to not only cash in now on the shopping rush, but also to build relationships with customers that turns them into loyal patrons. Creating an experience that stands out and shows you value their business is the differentiator that really matters during the holidays and year-round.
About the Author:
Kristi Turner is CMO of Compeat. She received HT's prestigious Top Women in Restaurant Technology - Lifetime Achievement award in 2019.